The clinical psychologist wrote the best-seller in the 1990s and is now updating the text. On a recent visit to Seattle, she said she believes we need to have conversations about race in order to create better communities for everyone.
The black kids are still sitting together in the cafeteria — and the Asian kids and the white kids and every other group, too.
Twenty years ago, Beverly Tatum, a clinical psychologist and educator, wrote the book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race.”
She’s updated the best-seller for its 20th anniversary because the need for reasonable dialogue between people who disagree on volatile issues is more urgent now, if anything. Tatum drew sellout crowds at two Town Hall Seattle events Sunday, one at Westside School in West Seattle and the other at the Rainier Arts Center in the Columbia City neighborhood.
She asked members of the audience at Westside to raise their hands if they remember a race-related incident early in life, and then to call out their age at the time. Most people raised their hands and called out a range of ages. The biggest cluster was in single digits.
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Tatum asked for a show of hands of those who’d had a conversation about the incident with a caring adult. Very few hands went up. “You can’t solve a problem if you can’t talk about it,” she said.
The book’s title starts with a question she got often when she spoke at schools. She wrote the book to address that question and to put it in context with historical and developmental information and data on current circumstances to help people understand race in America.
The first version had significant impact on readers like Randy and Amy Hollinger, who are both educators and white. He’s an elementary-school teacher in Bellevue, and she is the assistant head of school at Westside. They were in line to have their old copy autographed, and both said the book helped expand their understanding of racism.
“I grew up in Florida with a biracial sister,” Randy told me. “I always thought for so long, I guess somewhat arrogantly, that I was really liberal and I had a liberal family and so, would I really need to talk about race, right?” But he learned we all have biases and blind spots.
What changed his perspective as a teacher and as a person was a trainer at the school in Florida where they worked at the time. She started a workshop by saying, “Let’s just start off by acknowledging that we’re all racist.” She used Tatum’s book to teach the educators.
Amy said she noticed black children were getting disciplinary referrals at the Florida school. Black and Latino students being disciplined out of proportion to their behavior when compared with other students is now recognized as a significant problem nationally, including in Seattle Public Schools.
What Amy learned about solving that and other problems is that, “It’s more about us changing who we are than (our students) changing who they are, so that we can better serve them.”
When Tatum retired as president of Spelman College in 2015 and decided to update the book, people asked if kids were still segregated in cafeterias. The unfortunate answer is that the same forces at work in 1997 are still keeping Americans apart. But some things have changed, and the update reflects that.
Non-Hispanic whites are a minority of students in U.S. public schools, but public schools are more segregated today than they were 20 years ago. There has been a backlash against affirmative action, including in education. She mentioned the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated integration programs in Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky.
And there is the continuing impact of sky-high incarceration rates. The country elected Barack Obama president and some declared the country post-racial. Then videos of black people being shot changed the narrative. And as she was finishing the book, Donald Trump became president.
Sometimes people ask her whether anything at all has gotten better, and she says, “If you are 63, as I am … I have to say, ‘yes.’ ”
But if you are 20 years old, she said, 1954 is ancient history. The lifetimes of 20-year-olds include 9/11, the Great Recession, the killing of Trayvon Martin without his shooter being held accountable. It includes both Obama and Trump and the violent march in Charlottesville.
She said young people in surveys say it would be good to talk about race, but few said they’d be willing to do that. Her book can help.
Tatum organized the book in three parts, “What, so what and, now what?” It’s necessary to know the facts, to understand how they affect people and then to act in some way that contributes to solutions.
Those three steps are where hope lies.